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Florence candidates gear up for general election

FLORENCE — Before voters want to hear about streets, taxes or economic development, they ask Town Council candidate Arthur “Snake” Neal about his nickname.

His uncle had the nickname first — “why, I don’t know,” Neal told listeners at a campaign event he and two other candidates held Sept. 2 at the Windmill Winery. Neal’s father thought his son looked just like his brother, and gave him the nickname, too. The name stuck, and it’s all anyone has ever called him.

Even his mother calls him Snake, and “If you know my mother, you would know the name is innocent.” When he was about to graduate high school, principal Joseph Gubbins asked him, “This is embarrassing, but what’s your real name?”

Neal said he’s seen his town “dwindle” over the years and no one from Florence has gotten up to say anything. “I’ve always said Florence doesn’t need anything but our downtown back, and housing. I have a lot of friends who grew up in this town and they have to move out of it because they don’t want to pay $180,000 for a little adobe house.

“What Florence needs is housing, a new direction. … Heck Friday and Saturday nights, let’s block it off, get a DJ and throw a party. … I love my town, I want to be a voice for it, and I want to push other people from Florence to be a voice for our town.”

For mayoral candidate Kyle Larsen, the Windmill event was a return to where his campaign began.

“This started right here, 10 months ago. We were over there and I said, ‘You know what, I think I want to run for mayor.’ And two guys who are in this audience said, ‘Great idea.’

“I’m in this to win,” Larsen said. “I’m going to go to the very end and we’re going to change this place. … You know where my heart’s at. It’s to make sure we change the makeup of this town. We’re not talking about Anthem; Anthem is just fine. We’re talking about what has been deprived for so long.”

Larsen said while he works for a thriving downtown, “I’m not going to ignore Anthem, either. We’re going to work very hard to do something there that hasn’t been done for six years — and that’s called a new business, a new restaurant, or something, because it’s ignored as well.”

Council candidate Bill Tanner said he has core beliefs that won’t change. “I believe in God; I believe in our country; I believe in the Second Amendment. I’m pro-life. I’m pro-Trump. If any of that offends you, that’s OK, we can have a discussion. But those things are not going to change with me.”

He said he looks at the current condition of downtown Florence and asks “Why? Why have we missed the opportunity to create jobs, to create vibrant businesses? What’s been going on that we have decided not to invest in downtown?”

Businesses attracts business, Tanner said. This area has major employers who have contractors and subcontractors. If they are approached correctly and incentivized, they might relocate some operations to Florence, Tanner said.

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Downtown Florence showing new signs of life

FLORENCE — There are several signs of renewed interest in downtown, town Planner Larry Harmer told the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Several previously vacant lots in residential areas have new homes or homes are under construction, and several more are in design, Harmer told the commission on Sept. 3. Sunrise Estates south of Butte Avenue has 89 vacant lots platted 15 years ago. A builder is currently in escrow to buy those lots and is amending the final plat to 83 lots to leave room for drainage retention.

Harmer continued that the town is negotiating a development agreement with MODUS Holdings Inc. for a community of 112 residential rentals north of Heritage Park. He said there’s also a lot of new interest in Main Street.

“We’re working as best we can with those folks. … Once they actually purchase the property and file permit requests, for business licenses or whatever, it becomes public information. Until then, we have nothing firm as far as naming names.”

Harmer also said the town is in the process of hiring an economic development director. He said there was an initial review of applicants a couple of weeks ago, advertising for the position continues and a second review is coming up soon. Judging from recent Town Council comments, the successful candidate will be making downtown a priority, Harmer said.

Harmer’s report was in response to Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Gary Pranzo’s comment at the panel’s previous meeting that development north of the Gila River isn’t helping the downtown area. Pranzo asked for ideas about how to bring downtown along with the prosperity happening on the other end of town.

Pranzo said Sept. 3 that he’s happy to hear there’s some turnaround, and whatever’s causing this interest — perhaps news of a future Grinder sports complex, he said — “I hope it continues. But I don’t want us to take our eye off the ball. … I hope we can continue to move forward with redevelopment south of the Gila.”

The commission held a second public hearing Sept. 3 on a new land use category for the future Grinder complex. At the conclusion of the hearing, the commission recommended in favor of establishing a “Sports Oriented Mixed-Use” land category for the town’s 2020 General Plan and assigning this land use to a Major General Plan Amendment application submitted by Grinder Sports Group Inc. for approximately 360 acres on North Felix Road.

Pranzo told those listening to the online meeting that the current action only proposes to create a new land use category and is “not a discussion of the viability or business model of Grinder.”

During the public hearing, a Magma Ranch resident told the commission she wants to be annexed into Florence and be served by a new water system if the Grinder complex is built. She asked a town representative to come to a homeowners association meeting to discuss annexation.

Another resident, Tiffany Simmons of Magma Ranch Vistas, asked for details of the approval process for the Grinder complex.

Harmer said after the commission’s two public hearings, the Town Council will hold a hearing on Oct. 5 and may or may not act that night. If the amendment is approved, Grinder can begin filing for annexation and zoning.

Harmer said the Major General Plan Amendment itself doesn’t give Grinder any entitlement. The annexation, development agreement and rezoning are all still to come. The land Grinder hopes to develop is currently farmland designated for low- and medium-density residential and community commercial.

Grinder’s proposal consists of a sports complex north of the existing Magma Ranch community and a smaller parcel south of Magma Ranch. A Sun Valley Farms resident asked how the smaller parcel relates to the larger one.

Lyndon Estill, chief operations officer of Grinder, said the smaller southern parcel would be “supportive infrastructure” such as restaurants and entertainment. He said the entire project is meant to provide community support, “bringing missing amenities and commercial opportunities residents don’t currently have, and are traveling long distances to enjoy.”

Florence man shot, son in custody

FLORENCE — A 15-year-old Florence boy is in custody after his father came home from work the morning of Aug. 25 and was shot in the face.

The man was hospitalized and is recovering at home, Police Chief Bruce Walls said. The teen remained in custody in Pinal County Juvenile Detention a week after his arrest on charges of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

What preceded the shooting remains under investigation. The teen is currently charged as a juvenile, but police are working with the Pinal County Attorney’s Office on the final charges, Walls said. Police have the weapon, but Walls declined to discuss it further.

Police first discovered a man had been shot after they were dispatched to a report of shots fired on North Silver Street, according to a police report.

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Florence lags neighbors in completing census

FLORENCE — With only about three weeks left to complete the 2020 Census, Florence lags behind its neighbors in taking the initiative to respond before census takers come calling.

In recent days, Florence’s self-response rate was 48.8% while Coolidge’s was 54.5%, Casa Grande’s was 61.2% and Queen Creek’s was 68%. Downtown Florence residents, who receive their mail at post office boxes, were delayed in receiving their census letters, which likely had an effect, Florence Management Analyst Jennifer Evans said.

But she told PinalCentral by email that she’s not sure it’s useful to compare Florence to other cities and towns. “We should just challenge ourselves to do better because our residents benefit from everyone completing the census.” The deadline to respond is Sept. 30.

In the 2010 census, 43.9% of Florence households self-responded. “While our current response is an improvement, we really want to reach at least 50%,” Evans said. Florence and Pinal County staff are working on a joint promotional event downtown on Sept. 22.

Meanwhile, field operations have resumed and census takers are going door-to-door. Advocates are encouraging residents to “stop the knock” by visiting or calling toll free 844-330-2020. The census only takes a few minutes to complete and answers are confidential, according to the census bureau.

Evans said everyone’s response is important because the town receives state and federal money each year based on population. “Those funds improve our infrastructure, public safety, social services, and even quality of life.”